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How does a distiller flavor your spirits?

By Kim Karrick

How do we flavor a gin, a citrus flavored vodka, a coconut flavored rum? Distillers make a variety of spirits, many created from a neutral base spirit (aka, vodka), then later turned into a flavored product. And, YES, gin is a flavored neutral spirit. At Scratch Distillery, we make a vodka, or neutral spirit, then we turn it into a gin or a flavored vodka at some point, using the same method for each. Making a base spirit from scratch is much less common than you'd think. Most companies simply buy the base spirit and do the infusion or flavoring. And that is why we call ourselves Scratch.

Generally, there are four common methods for adding a flavor to a spirit. There are two additional uncommon methods, so let's get them out of the way first. One is sous vide percolation to cook flavors into a spirit without evaporating away the ethanol (EtOH). This method is for the true artist bartenders and scientists, but not practical for distilleries making large quantities. The second is fermentation where the flavor comes from something other than the base. An example is our bier schnapps. The hops are included in the fermentation and they show as a flavor in the spirit.

Onto the common methods used by distillers…

Compounding means adding synthetic flavors after distillation. This method is used by distilleries of all sizes, although it makes more practical sense for the largest producers. Consider an analogy about flavored potato chips. You wouldn't assume they squeeze BBQ sauce or sour cream over those chips. Sweeteners and citric acid are not officially considered flavorings, but they are also used by many distillers to affect the flavor of the spirit.

Maceration involves extracting flavors by soaking natural products in ethanol. Almost the same as crushing or muddling fruit in a cocktail, but usually a passive process. These products have a relatively short shelf life. If you are enjoying flavoring spirits with natural products at home, the parts you should pay attention to are (A) the length of time you soak the products in the spirit prior to using the spirit and (B) the length of time you have to use it before it loses its potency, vibrancy, or becomes "earthy/dusty" from slow degradation of the organic matter. It is like a wine in how it will degrade over time but taking longer because of its higher alcohol concentration.

Steeping This is still infusion, making or sourcing a base spirit, then distilling it again with a flavored ingredient(s). EtOH acts as a solvent and pulls flavonoids and essential oils from the natural ingredients. The vapor EtOH travels through the still and when it is condensed at the other end of the still back into liquid, it has these flavors but without any organic matter that will degrade and thus a shelf stable product. Hard crusty things do best with this method. One method used to imbue gin botanical "flavors" into a neutral spirit is to soak the hearty botanicals in EtOH this way for some decided-upon length of time. Fresh floral and citrus do not show well in the flavor characteristics with this method. The EtOH is too harsh and flavors degrade before the still can even be closed and heated up. Think about the flavor profile for gin brands that have existed since around 1830. They all have root and bark spices and, of course, that heartiest of all ingredients, the juniper berry.

Vapor infusion is similar to steeping in that the same chemistry allows for EtOH to pull flavonoids and essential oils from botanicals. The advantage of the vapor infusion method is that gas is less dense than liquid and, thus, is a less harsh solvent which allows for the inclusion of more "fragile" botanicals. Imagine vapor passing through the still to the "gin basket" where it makes contact with the natural ingredients with which you wish to flavor the spirit. Picture lavender, fresh citrus, and the rest of your botanical mixture waiting in the gin basket for the EtOH vapor to pass through and "pull" the flavor from all of the ingredients to the end of the still, where the vapor is cooled, and it turns back into a liquid spirit that now has the flavor of what it passed through.

At Scratch Distillery, we use the gin basket for flavoring our gins and our flavored vodkas with fresh ingredients. The really interesting thing about a gin produced using the gin basket is that, in the example of our Martini Style Gin, all 17 ingredients are going to be "consumed" and pulled over into the collection tank, at very different paces. At the very beginning of the gin production day, the lavender and elderflower flavors are all that you would smell and taste, because they are broken down so quickly by the ethanol vapor. As the distillate coming out of the still loses the essence of the floral elements, the next "softest" elements reveal themselves: bay leaf, sage, rosemary, citrus. Then spices and peppercorns, and at the end of the day the only element left adding its flavor to the cumulative collection in the spirit tank, is good ole juniper. The flavor coming out of the still at any point in the day is different, but the cumulative flavor profile is what matters! A lovely part of the job is making sure that the composite flavor profile distilled that day matches my recipe; the nose knows. As well as the mouth and throat!

Kim Karrick is the owner/distiller of Scratch Distillery ™ in Edmonds, 425-673-7046.


First published November 2018

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